This is the sixteenth in our “8 Questions” series — in which we sit down with founders in the Playfair portfolio who share their entrepreneurial journey.
We first invested in AeroCloud, a software management platform for airport operations, in 2020. Since then, the company has experienced tremendous growth, winning airport customers across the US and Europe, and recently acquiring Flight Solutions to enhance their product offering.
Today, we sit down with co-founder and CEO, George Richardson, to hear his story from the beginnings of AeroCloud. We hope this can help other founders and aspirational entrepreneurs in their own ventures.
Entrepreneurship has always been a huge part of my life.
I grew up in an unusual entrepreneurial environment; my parents each ran their own businesses before they met. Mum ran a hairdresser, clothes shops and a United Colours of Benetton franchise. Dad started a property business straight out of college which he grew, sold and then did it again. They then built a business together, which they still own and operate now, providing active retirement modular homes across the UK.
As you can imagine, the conversations at our dinner table growing up were all about finances, banks, growth — business never stopped at 5 o’clock and I was constantly reminded you are a few bad decisions away from losing it all.
My Dad encouraged me to make my own money if I wanted certain things. It couldn’t be more cliché, but I used to go to Costco, buy sweets in bulk and sell them at every opportunity. I also bought and sold Christmas trees out of the back of a van when I passed my driving test, had a car wash, and followed my Dad to building sites across the country at the weekends to help out where I could, from sales of new homes to shifting muck in diggers.
I’ve been making my own money since I was 8 years old and at that age I was already thinking of ways I could make money more effectively. This stimulated a major interest for me and was combined with growing up in a fortunate environment where I was engaging in “commerce” with most people I met who where often older than me.
With my parents building a future for me and my brother we were always subject to conversations around the highs and lows of my parents financial situation. This was especially apparent when we had a huge issue financially after the 2008 property crash.
After school, a fortunate hobby turned into a profession at the age of 16 and I ended up turning professional in sports car endurance racing and made a career out of selling products on the side, connecting teams, drivers and the most lucrative… sponsorship!
However, once I retired from motorsport at the age of 26, I understood that I have always been much better commercially than as a driver and my efforts would be best spent growing a business.
I’ve had loads of opportunities in my life, been fortunate enough to see the world and build a fantastic network. My parents supported me to develop my interest in entrepreneurship, be there for me if it went wrong (which it has done a few times) and inspired me to make more with what I have, which I am very grateful for as I know that’s not the case for everyone.
It all started with being introduced to Ian, CTO and my co-founder of AeroCloud, through a mutual friend at Costa Coffee in Manchester. At that time, both of us were in the right places in our professional lives to start a new business; I was thinking of retiring from racing, whilst Ian had just sold a company. It was perfect timing.
He is technical, I am commercial, it worked and we began our search for an old lock that needed a new key!
Ian told me all about how broken the airport market was from his prior business and I simply started studying it. As I delved in deeper, I found myself excited about airports. Not a lot of people think of airports in this way, but it is actually one of the fastest moving environments there is and requires smooth coordination of multiple factors in a high-pressure environment. There is commerce at scale, federal security, retail, data, passengers, diversions, cancellations…I could go on. Airports are a challenging environment and ripe for disruption.
Ian and I started looking for solutions to open up these legacy markets. We knew that certain things within the industry were old and outdated and desperately in need of change. In order to make those changes, we needed a fresh approach in the form of fresh software, as well as a fresh senior management team to lead the reshaping of the industry. And so, AeroCloud emerged.
When we started in business, I quickly learnt how important it is to surround yourself with incredible people to succeed. I believe that it’s almost impossible to scale a business at the rate at which we’re doing it, without being able to call upon a range of different qualities from within your team that you don’t possess.
However, I see self-awareness at the core of it all. If people are not self-aware, and they can’t solve their own problems, they won’t be able to solve their business’ problems. So, the hardest lesson I learned is that it’s worthwhile to put in the extra effort to hire the best possible people. Although sometimes it might seem sensible to quickly hire in order to fill a gap, it’s much better to wait it out and hire someone you know is the perfect fit for your business and reward them accordingly. This will, in turn, pay you tenfold. Overall, I don’t have any regrets on my decisions and as a consequence we now have a fantastic team whom I trust to continue to grow AeroCloud.
The moment that comes to mind happened quite recently when I did an internal town hall. We’ve been growing fast for a while now, so I thought it would be a good idea for everybody to come into the office for this town hall.
The minute I saw 39 sets of eyes looking at me, I had the daunting realisation that I’m now responsible for these people’s livelihoods, mortgages, families — all that stuff. That was also when it clicked for me that I am actually comfortable with this type of growth and responsibility, and confident with scaling the business to hundreds of people. It sounds weird but at that point I was proud of myself for getting to this point and had zero conflicting mindset that I wouldn’t be able to take on the undertaking moving forward.
In my early racing days, I was the one who had to orchestrate everything, unlike many other professions you are not just as good as your last race but you don’t get invited to the next race if you don’t do a good job, and therefore don’t get paid. Years of not knowing where you stand and having to please every stakeholder is not one I would wish on anyone.
It’s super tough, constant pressure makes it extremely uncomfortable but you soon have to learn to cope and business is no different. When it’s working it feels brilliant and when it’s not I can pull on my experience of how to make it work again and that is a defining moment to have that trust in yourself.
When it comes to investors, I’m always looking for individuals that are better than me because I want to up my game every day. They need to come from different backgrounds, have scaled businesses beyond where I’ve scaled AeroCloud, and be mature, logical, communicate concerns effectively and self-aware. If these qualities are achieved you can bet the company you then create together will be better. It’s their job to question, push and coach. They have to earn their keep just like you.
I think the most important thing I’ve learned is to be vocal about the challenges that you’re facing, as well as the opportunities. It’s all too easy to just talk about the upside all the time and frankly it’s fake. You need a area where you can in confidence talk about the bad and talk about where there are gaps, that’s the fun bit!
Every business has challenges and roadblocks and investors play a crucial role in supporting you through these. They need to be aware of the full picture and understand the value and vision of the business. This is why it is important for me to attract the right investor, as I see them to be the people who will help me solve these challenges with their knowledge and expertise of scale.
A top tip for founders looking to raise. Look for people who add value before they put their money in. I am lucky enough to have had this now two times, with my seed investors and recently a meeting with a well known Series A investor.
A key moment that stands out was when we secured our second customer, Tampa International Airport. It was a huge win to secure so early on in our infancy; we were only three people at that point! I felt hugely responsible for making that deal happen — I’ll always remember that moment when we got the nod. It was a sense of relief not elation but I enjoyed what was then the knock-on effect of raising capital.
That deal really made AeroCloud. It was a calculated all or nothing approach and it paid off. I’m finding myself in that situation right now with another much larger customer, it’s hugely exciting. In my opinion, that’s what separates average from brilliant and I aspire to grow AeroCloud in the best way possible.
Essentially it’s to replicate what we’ve already achieved at mass scale over two additional markets. We’ve got a mature game-changing product that is not only needed but also works so efficiently. Over the past 3 years we’ve put the effort in to perfect it. Now it’s all about consistency and perseverance to grow it. That’s the unsexy side of business — once you find something that works, it’s about the grind to scale it.
Our next funding round is solely focused on doing what we’ve already done, but making it better and scaling it across different markets. As we continue to grow over the next two years we will become a much larger player in our space, that’s when the fun starts. Our current focus is Europe and the Americas. After Series A, we’ll be looking to more international markets to truly become a global business. We’ve just done a big deal in the Caribbean and have another sizable deal coming very soon. We’ll also be looking at Africa, APAC and the Middle East — all these places require flexibility which legacy providers can’t give.
Look at what’s the worst that can happen. So for me, I’m fortunately aware, the worst scenario would have been moving back in with my mum (which isn’t that bad, she’s an amazing cook!).
For others, the worst scenario might be much worse, they might have families or children to support. Whatever it might be for you, because everyone is different, you have to understand your worst scenario to determine the maximum risk factor that you’re able to stomach.
With that in mind, start saying yes to opportunities that you think have over a 51% chance of being successful and keep saying yes until it becomes a reality whilst managing your risk.
Once you get to the point of making a decision — be comfortable with the risk versus reward and go for it fully, don’t look back. Part of that means being confident, persistent, consistent, self aware without being stupid and committed to your vision without question.
You have to believe in yourself and stick to it despite the up and downs. Plan for the downs and don’t think too much about the ups to start with, oh and plan your spend in your personal life for maximum runway to focus on your business, keep a job down or stay at home for that extra year. Don’t buy crap you don’t need, there’s plenty of time for that in later life.
Self-doubt is a good thing, it keeps you sharp between the ears but don’t let it consume you, often the cleverest people get put off as they see the risk better than others, don’t listen to them, naivety is your best asset in some scenarios and the narrow road to success is super lonely so invest in your self confidence and self worth as you’ll need it.
I haven’t yet reached the lowest low but I’m confident I can beat it.
Stay in the saddle.